She lost her appetite. She grew listless. Something didn’t seem right over the last few days with Szenja, a beloved 21-year-old polar bear at SeaWorld in San Diego.
Then, she died suddenly on Tuesday, “a very difficult day for all of us,” Al Garver, SeaWorld San Diego’s vice president of zoological operations, said in a statement.
“Szenja not only touched the hearts of those who have cared for her over the last two decades, but also the millions of guests who had the chance to see her in person.
“We’re proud to have been a part of her life and to know that she inspired people from around the world to want to protect polar bears in the wild.”
A necropsy will help determine why Szenja died, but animal activists think they already know.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says that Szenja died because SeaWorld sent her “best friend” — another female polar bear named Snowflake — away to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for a breeding visit in late February.
The two bears had lived together at SeaWorld for 20 years.
“Szenja died of a broken heart,” Tracy Reiman, PETA executive vice president, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “After losing her companion of 20 years when SeaWorld shipped Snowflake to the Pittsburgh Zoo in order to breed more miserable polar bears, Szenja did what anyone would do when they lose all hope, she gave up.”
PETA had quickly objected when SeaWorld announced plans to move Snowflake to Pennsylvania.
According to the Tribune, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk sent a letter to SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby that the move would leave Szenja “sad and alone.”
“Snowflake and Szenja have already been deprived of everything that’s natural and important to them,” Newkirk wrote. “Please do not add to their suffering and sentence more polar bears to a dismal fate by moving forward with this ill-conceived plan.”
More than 56,000 people signed an online Care2 petition asking SeaWorld to not separate the “polar bear best friends.”
SeaWorld explained its participation in the Association of Zoo & Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan, a global breeding program.
“The SSP is a program developed in 1981 by the AZA to help ensure the survival of selected species in zoos and aquariums, most of which are threatened or endangered in the wild,” SeaWorld said in a statement.
“The polar bear population in the wild is continuing to dwindle, and since 2008, the polar bear has been listed as ‘threatened’ on the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.”
Polar bears typically have a life expectancy of 15 to 18 years in the wild, though some can live as long as 20 to 30 years, SeaWorld said, citing Polar Bears International.
Szenja lived nearly her entire life at SeaWorld. She was born at the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany in October 1995 and two years later was moved to SeaWorld’s Wild Arctic exhibit.
In a news release, SeaWorld said Szenja was an ambassador for arctic animals and raised awareness of polar bears for the Wild Artctic’s nearly 50 million guests.
She was also used for science, participating in studies on polar bear hearing sensitivity, social habits and reproductive hormones.
“Most polar bears are solitary, but there are exceptions,” Sharanya Prasad, Care2’s campaigns strategies manager, told NBC 7 in San Diego in March after the two bears were separated.
“Sometimes, wild polar bears form relationships that can last for years. The state of captivity may have created an even stronger bond between Snowflake and Szenja.”